INSIDE STORY: How UAE cricket aims to rebuild with youth

Denzil Pinto 10:12 03/08/2015
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Out with the old: UAE cricket must bring in younger players to reach the next level.

When the UAE defeated Netherlands by 10 runs in November 2013, not only did they qualify for the 2014 ICC World Twenty20 but it was a beginning of a new chapter for cricket in the country.

The UAE had never reached the shortest format event since the ICC introduced the competition in 2007. Buoyed by that success, the Associate side went on to seal their berth in the 2015 World Cup, claiming one of the top four spots in the qualifying campaign in February 2014. 

It was their first appearance in a 50-over World Cup since 1996 and the achievement, coupled with the qualification for the Under-19 World Cup, completed coach Aaqib Javed’s short-term goals since taking over in 2012. The feats have put the country on the cricket map and their achievements were recognised by Emirates Cricket Board (ECB), while OSN extended their support by sponsoring the UAE – who also received extra funding from the ICC.

Although they failed to make it through the proper round at the 2014 World Twenty20, losing all their games in Bangladesh, Javed’s side put on some encouraging displays at the 50-over World Cup with Shaiman Anwar scoring against Ireland the country’s first World Cup-century. 

But after reaching two successive ICC events, the UAE will have to wait to rub shoulders against the world’s elite after a miserable World T20 qualifying campaign in Scotland last month.  They were expected to mount a challenge in their bid to qualify for next year’s World Twenty20 in India.

Instead, they won just one in six finishing fifth in Group B as Javed lamented that “nothing went right”. Following their first-round exit, ECB chief executive David East will hold talks with UAE cricket officials in September to ensure the national team learn from their campaign. 

One concern is the age of the squad. Only Umair Ali (29), Ahmed Raza (26), Mohammad Naveed (28), Rohan Mustafa (26) and Nasir Aziz (29) were under 30 in the 15-man party for the T20 qualifiers. Javed insisted it is time to blood youngsters to ensure the UAE retain their ODI status beyond 2019.

“It’s an important phase and we are looking to building youngsters from now,” he said. “The ODI status is everything for the UAE; we get funding from ICC and get to play ODIs. I feel that the UAE team is ageing and sometimes it’s really difficult for the bunch of guys that are getting old. We should be focusing on young players.” 

With more than 10 cricket academies in the country, there is no shortage of budding cricketers. But the biggest problem for Javed, is the number of youngsters who leave the country, either to pursue studies elsewhere or because their parents decide to leave.

Sudhakar Shetty, head coach at Max Talent academy in Dubai, said: “It’s always frustrating as a coach to see the players grow and then leave. Some want to go back to India but the competition is higher there and in other countries so they get lost and lose interest.”

One idea is to build a national cricket academy to tackle the issue but Javed believes full-time contracts is the answer.

“Unless we have full-time players, it’s impossible to play with professional teams,” he said. “It could be a combination of young and experienced players but right now we are depending on their availability.”

The UAE have a major advantage that they train at Dubai’s ICC Academy, while Pakistan play their home series’ in the country. 
As part of the ICC High Performance Programme, the UAE benefit from various areas including sports science, seminars and training.

Additionally, the ICC Academy joined up with the ECB in their preparations for the World Cup, which saw Mudassar Nazar and Peter Kelly join the national team’s coaching staff as batting and strength and conditioning coaches respectively. Will Kitchen, UAE cricket high performance manager and general manager at ICC Academy, does not doubt the beneficial impact but admits there are plenty of challenges ahead.

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“I’m confident we’ve done enough and we’ve demonstrated we had a big enough impact on UAE cricket,” he said. “If the UAE want to push on they’ve got to invest in a performance structure and first-team structure. As we move forward, the relationship 
between us and the ECB will shift and we will want to focus on nurturing young talent in the future.”

Besides many inter-school tournaments in the UAE – including Sport360’s successful National School League (NSL) – the ECB continue their progress in unearthing young talent. 

In April, they launched the Al Ain Water Under-19 inter-emirate tournament and with more than 100 cricketers taking part it acted as trials for the UAE Under-19 squad, who will travel to Malaysia for the ACC Premier League this month. The 25 selected boys, representing the ECB Greens, were pitted against top domestic sides in the ACE-Pan Global Group Ramadan tournament in Abu Dhabi. The ECB were keen to test players’ abilities in their preparation, as well as secure places for the final 14-man squad and it was widely praised including 17-year-old hopeful Moiz Qazi.

“I can go abroad and continue playing cricket but right now, the way it’s shaping up I don’t mind staying in the UAE and studying at university here,” he said.

Cricket is hugely popular here but has failed to gain much interest among Emiratis despite hosting Pakistan’s home series’ as well as the first leg of the 2014 IPL. 

Captain Mohammad Tauqir and Fahad Al Hashmi were the two Emiratis in the World Cup squad but there are plans to attract more.

“We are hoping to announce a programme in September in Al Ain to Emirati students who are playing cricket in Al Ain,” said East.

The domestic circuit consists of more than 500 players. T20 dominates the cricket calendar but there are few 50-over competitions. The Danube Test series, played over two days, is the only long format in the UAE but just four sides competed in last year’s edition. 

That lack of experience showed as the national team suffered a first-round innings defeat to Ireland in their four-day match ICC Inter Continental Cup in June. With players combining domestic cricket with full-time jobs, East admits there’s a lot of “challenges” in playing multi-format games.

“It’s an important phase and we’re looking to build youngsters from now” – Javed

Anis Sajan, owner of Danube Lions and creator of the Danube Test series, insists it is vital to introduce longer formats as it will help players adjust to 50-overs.

“Most of the players want to go for the glory shots rather than rotate the strike,” he said. “Hence the teams don’t bat their full quota of 50 overs due to lack of patience and temperament.”

The UAE’s fixture schedule is yet to be released for the remainder of the year but they will face an England XI team in a T20 friendly in Abu Dhabi on November 23. It’s their first game against a Test nation since the World Cup.

“It may not be an official international match but even friendlies against Test nation teams during their tours will be hugely beneficial to us,” said East. “If we do have the opportunity to play better opposition, that will allow us to improve.

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